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Human Trafficking in the Balkans

A Roma girl from Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina was lured across Eastern Europe by a Bosnian security minister who told her that she would be given a scholarship for school in the West. But instead, she was dragged off to the Balkans and forced into human trafficking to be a prostitute. 

Every year hundreds of thousands of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani migrants and refugees go through the “Balkan route”-  the path stretching from the Middle East to the European Union through Turkey and South East Europe- so that they are eligible to enter the European Union to create a new life or seek asylum. (See map below). 

There has been an increase in migrants and refugees heading into Macedonia and Serbia from Turkey and Greece, since 2015. Countries in the West Balkans kept their borders open to allow migrants and refugees to continue traveling through them to a better life in western Europe. But the EU countries did not want this large migration to continue. By September of 2015, Hungary had built a wall along its southern borders with Serbia and Croatia to block further migrant and refugee crossings. In October of 2015, Hungary officially closed its border crossing with Serbia, blocking the route from Serbia into Hungary.

The journey is rough and often deadly, and many people find themselves exposed to different risks, vulnerabilities and exploitation, including human trafficking. Because so many people go through the Balkan route, it is not possible to estimate the exact number of victims related to human trafficking. 

(This image shows Syrian refugees traveling the Balkan trail. Crossing the border from Greece into Macedonia.)

When, why, and how vulnerability to human trafficking emerges in mass groups of migrants and refugees is still an open question. “The fast movement of an extraordinarily high number of migrants and refugees of mixed nationalities make it difficult for police, aid groups and other front line responders to identify cases of trafficking,” said Anette Brunovskis, Fafo Senior Researcher. Human trafficking is harder to recognize when there are huge and very mobile crowds. 

More knowledge and evidence of these risks and vulnerabilities are essential to better inform improved policy and programmatic responses in the fields of migration, asylum and human trafficking. The media can shape the public’s awareness and knowledge of human trafficking. “Current discussions and media coverage often conflate human trafficking and human smuggling, which are not only separate legal categories but also require fundamentally different policy and practical responses.”

Balkan countries are the main source to meet the demand for trafficked women in Western Europe. The reasons for the high demand are divided into three components. The first factor that increases demand is the men (and occasionally women) who seek out women for the purpose of purchasing sex acts. The second factor is the profiteers in the sex industries including the traffickers, pimps, brothel owners, and supporting corrupt officials who make money from sex trafficking and prostitution. The third factor is the culture that indirectly creates a demand for victims by normalizing prostitution. All three factors overlap in the Balkans, hence causing a high demand for women.

A young woman or girl in the Balkan region can be bought for between €500 and €5,000, and once she is forced into prostitution, she can earn her owner as much as €15,000 a month. Then she can be resold and replaced by another victim.

The Roma girl eventually found shelter, and told authorities that she was raped by local police and even a Bosnian security minister. The girl testified against the minister in the shelter easily because she has photographic memory and was able to describe all the details, proving that she was lured for human trafficking and not for educational reasons. The minister was arrested and put in jail.

After 50 Years, Is Bangladesh a Secular or Religious Nation?

The history of Bangladesh has been marked by a struggle between secularism and religion for the nationalistic soul of the country. Bangladesh fought its war of independence in 1971 on the basis of the ideal of secularism. For Bangladesh, embracing religion or creating a secular identity has been a source of major contention in the creation of its national identity.  

After India gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, the Partition , a division of India and Pakistan into two states, was created by the members of the Bengal Legislative Assembly. They decided to cast three separate votes to decide the fate of Bengal. At the end of the three separate elections, it was decided that Bengal will indeed be divided. The Muslim regions were then separated into West and East Pakistan by India’s landmass. Bangladesh, which was Bengali, was part of Eastern Pakistan. Bengali ethnic nationalism began to rise in East Pakistan soon after Pakistan gained independence. 

A majority of East Pakistan was Muslim, while a mjority of West Pakistan was Hindu. There were linguistic, cultural, and political differences that couldn’t be solved. The Bengali people spoke their own language and eventually wanted it to become the primary language of east Pakistan. But they faced immense discrimination by the western region.   

A civil war broke out between West and East Pakistan in 1971. The East won and controlled “Bengali”, which is now the country of Bangladesh. Soon after Bangladesh became independent, it turned into a secular state that was founded by the Awami League, based in an Islamic society. Awami League is one of the major political parties in Bangladesh. Secularism in Bangladesh was seen as a denial of Islam, by some people.

In the 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh, secularism was one of the four fundamental principles of state policy. But the President of Bangladesh, President Ziaur Rahman removed the secularism principle in 1977, and declared Islam the state religion. Today, the leading and most popular religion in Bangladesh is Islam. Bangladesh has 152 million Muslims, which makes up 90.4% of the country’s population. 

The Awami League, brought back the four fundamental principles in the Constitution in 2008, returning the country to its secular roots. Even though the U.N. saw Bangladesh as a “Moderate Muslim Democracy,” Dipu Moni, the Bangladesh forign minister since 2019 said that the country is, “A secular, not moderate, Muslim country.” Secular values have clashed in Bangladesh’s society, with the abolishing and the re-establish of secularism, it reveals how important these principles are to their Constitution. 

In March of 2016, Bangladesh’s high court rejected a petition to have Islam reinstated as the offical state religion, a policy that had been in place since 1988. The petition was written by secular activitsts to remove Islam as the offical state religion of the Muslim majority of Bangladesh. There were also steps in place to have a nationwide Islamic strike led by the Jamaat-e-Islami to force the petition’s rejection but it was a moot point because their prayers were answered.

The secular petitioners were not allowed to state their case or produce arguments. Subrata Chowdhury, one of the secular activists in the case said, “We are saddened (at the ruling). It’s a sad day for the minorities of Bangladesh, the judges simply said the rule is discharged.” Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, make up the minority religions of Bangladesh. The court said the petition was not legitimate because the people who filed never registered with authorities. Islam will remain the offical religion of Bangladesh. 

Jamaat-e-Islami is Bangladesh’s largest Islamic party and they see the outcome as a, “Victory of 160 million people.” Hefajat-e-Islam local leaders of the Islamic group also stated they are delighted with the courts decision, and members of the group accumulated outside of the court and held up a ‘V’ with their fingers for victory. Fazlul Karim Kashemy, a Hefajat-e-Islam leader said, “We thank the court on behalf of the nation for rejecting the petition, Muslims and non-Muslims in our society have been maintaining good relationship for long.” 

In November of the same year, government officials were contemplating removing Isalm as the official religion. After a senior politician claimed Bangladeshi people have embraced “a force of secularism.” 

 Dr Abdur Razzak, a leading member of Bangladesh’s Awami League party  said, “Bangladesh is a country of communal harmony. Here we live with people from all religions and Islam should not be accommodated as the state religion in the Bangladeshi constitution. I have said it abroad and now I am saying it again that Islam will be dropped from Bangladesh’s constitution when the time comes. The force of secularism is within the people of Bangladesh. There is no such thing as a ‘minority’ in our country.” He also said that Islam has been kept as the religion of the state for “stratigic reasons.” 

The International Religious Freedom Report of  2005 of Bangladesh states, “Religion is an important part of community identity for citizens, including those who do not participate actively in prayers or services. Confirming that religion is the first choice by a citizen for self-identification, with atheism being extremely rare.” 

Secularism and religion in Bangladesh has been so vilified by Islamists that it has come to mean something comparable to anti-Islamic. It hasn’t changed then, and it will certainly not change now.